My interest in Mopars goes back to my teen years. I first learned to drive in the late '60s in my father's '68 Plymouth Fury III. When he decided to look for a new car in 1970, I remember going to the dealership and bringing home a brochure for a '71 GTX, which I thought would make a great family car. Personally, I felt a Hemi would be extremely cool, but I knew that he wouldn't go for that, so I suggested the stock 440 instead. My dad smiled at me and promptly went out and bought a Chrysler Newport Custom with a 383 to power its massive tonnage. My dream of a musclecar had to be shelved until I could find a means to do it on my own.
As a student I had virtually no funds, and so my choices were extremely limited. By the time I was a freshman in college, I had saved enough money to buy my first car for $350-a '65 Austin Mini Cooper. Although not a musclecar, this was a high-performance version of an Austin Mini, and a total blast to drive. A few years later, I discovered the Dodge Dart had a high-performance version available that was accessible in price and not considered a sports car for insurance. While cruising the streets near home one day, I saw a '69 Dart Swinger 340 parked in a driveway. I went up, introduced myself, and told the gentleman I was interested in that type of car. The owner, an aircraft mechanic and avid auto enthusiast, befriended me, and together we looked for a suitable ride. I remember looking at several '69 and '70 Swingers before finally finding a copper-colored '69 with a 340 and a four-speed within my price range. My mechanic friend checked the car over, confirmed it was in excellent condition, and it was purchased without delay.
This car was to become the second love of my life, after my girlfriend (now wife) Cathy. With the help of my friend, I learned a lot about mechanics by working on this car over the years, doing minor upgrades, as well as significant repair work when required. I managed to increase the car's performance significantly with a good valve job, headers, and carburetor tuning. Gas mileage, however, suffered, so I slowly reverted to the original exhaust manifolds and more normal carburetor settings. I owned this car from 1973 to 1983, and it faithfully saw me through many youthful adventures up and down the east coast of the U.S. and Canada. When I finished college and was ready to go on to postgraduate training, my wife and I attached a U-Haul trailer to the Dart and moved to Philadelphia with all our meager belongings. A year later saw us moving westward to Minneapolis. The vehicle was still trustworthy, even though it had 130,000 miles on it and saw daily use.
While in Minneapolis in 1983, my wife and I had our first child, a daughter Emily. By this time, we had a second vehicle, which we used for commuting around the city. The day after bringing my daughter home from the hospital I went to leave for school, and the Dart was gone. It had been stolen, only to be found several weeks later, stripped of everything, including body parts, which at that time were difficult to find. Although the drivetrain was relatively intact, the car was essentially non-functional without significant repair work. I could not afford to fix it, and since we were moving back to Canada, I could not take it with me. I negotiated a deal with the insurance company, and the poor Dart was sent to the junkyard.
I was now in family mode, and after the birth of our second daughter Allison, we graduated to a minivan. In the late '80s and early '90s, there were not a lot of high performance, exciting automobiles coming out of Detroit. I missed the rumble of a big American V-8. One day I was chatting with a fellow professional who told me he had owned numerous musclecars and was rebuilding a '69 Firebird. He prompted me to start thinking about what kind of car I would like and persuaded me to start actively looking for one. I am not sure why I decided to go along with this, but...
There was no doubt in my mind that I was looking for a Mopar, and the Hemi had always intrigued me. When I was younger, there were races every Friday night on an old road behind the airport in Montreal. There was always chatter about whether or not the Hemi car (an A-990 car, I believe) would make an appearance on any particular night. I never actually saw it, but the fascination lived on. I decided if I were going to look for a car, it would have to have a Hemi. In the mid '90s I found a '67 Satellite that sounded interesting, but probably would have needed more restoration than I was ready to undertake. As I kept looking, I happened upon a recently restored '71 Plymouth Hemicuda convertible replica that the owner had not advertised, but had to sell. My timing was perfect, and, after a little negotiating, I became the proud owner of a very exciting car. Although not an original, it is a well-done clone, highly optioned, with many original and NOS parts. I began to get into the local car scene, joining the Edmonton Mopar Club, and going to numerous shows in the Edmonton and surrounding areas. The 'Cuda did well, winning numerous awards. However, many comments were along the lines of "Oh, this is so and so's car..." or "Yeah, I remember when this car was first..." It was difficult for me to accept this was not considered my car. I began to think about building or restoring a car of my own. I also began to lust after a little more power, and even though the stroked Hemi engine ran well, it was in a fairly heavy car that was basically stock and did not have all the get up and go I craved. The idea of a Hemi Dart began to take form.
I have been an avid reader of Mopar magazines (especially Mopar Muscle) since obtaining a Mopar in the late '90s, and had read several articles on the original Hemi Darts. Since the Dart had been my first love, as far as cars were concerned, this really seemed the way to go. Although, a potent small-block would definitely give better handling, the intrigue and lure of the Hemi had bitten me hard, and I felt that already having a street Hemi, a race Hemi would be an excellent addition.
I began reading everything I could find in print and on the Internet about '68 Hemi Darts. In the summer of 2000, I found an original that appeared photographically to be in excellent condition, although upon further inspection, it may have required some restoration. I also began to wonder who could restore such a car, and although there is an excellent restoration facility in our city, I felt that I needed some additional expertise, guidance, and innovation. Around this time, I saw the Holley Road runner in Mopar Muscle, and looked up the Muscle Car Restorations web site. I saw they had restored an original Hemi Dart. I sent John Balow a quick email, which was followed up with an informative phone call. We discussed the pros and cons of an original car vs. a replica. As I wanted to actually drive this car on the street, a replica seemed to be the way to go, so I gave John the go ahead to start looking for a suitable donor car. In the fall of 2000, we found a reasonably solid '68 Dart body in Montana.
The original plan was to build a faithful replica of an original L023 Dart. The only real difference would be the engine, which would be built to run on pump gas. As we developed the project, I really wanted to be able to drive the car and enjoy it. It was not to be a race car, nor was there any conception it would ever be a great handling car. Rather, it was meant to be a streetable version of Chrysler's original (race only) concept. With that in mind, we developed other ideas to improve the drivability, functionality, and handling with upgraded modern components, while still maintaining the feel of the original. It was important to me that the look and feel of the original concept be maintained. We also wanted the car to be unique and to make a statement at shows.
The intermingling of these various philosophies brought about some special touches to this vehicle. Practical considerations, such as four-wheel disc brakes, five-speed transmission, hydraulic clutch, and the proper suspension setup deemed necessary for a street car, were integrated into the design. We also kept the gearing at a reasonable ratio for street use. Body strength was improved with a six-point roll bar welded into place, and the sub-frames connected with rectangular frame connectors. There were also the more cosmetic touches, such as extensive use of carbon fiber for the front fenders, hood and scoop, air cleaner, and fan shroud, which we feel make a bold statement using modern technology, but at the same time are also attractive and weight saving. With an engine that weighs as much as a Hemi, anything that takes additional weight off the front end is an added bonus. The mirror delete plate is another specialized item we wanted to replicate from the original. The nation was scoured for one of these original plates, but, unfortunately, none was available. However, we did find the owner of an original who was kind enough to let us make a casting of his piece, providing for the fabrication of an excellent stainless steel reproduction. This is another small touch that adds to the original feel of the car. A truck mounted, reproduction, super stock battery also adds period authenticity.
The Ray Barton built 528 Hemi produces 658 hp at 5,900 rpm and 659 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm, while sucking pump gas. The aluminum heads have been fully ported and polished, allowing for excellent flow characteristics that, though not fully utilized, do make a difference in the street rpm range. The cam is a mild RBRE piece with .583/.573-inch lift and 257/263-degrees duration at .050 inch, in order to keep the horsepower within a streetable range. One hundred-plus horsepower could easily be added with a more aggressive cam profile. Ray Barton Racing Engine custom roller rockers are utilized, again to assist in efficiency and reliability. To help put this power to the ground, a Keisler five-speed transmission was chosen, which not only provides a steeper first gear for more aggressive launches, but also an overdrive to keep the rpm down on any potential highway driving. The power is then directed to a Dana rearend with 3.54 gears and a Sure Grip. The wheelwells were enlarged, utilizing mini tubs blended in to look original. The biggest tires possible were selected to fit within the tubs. Because of the size of the tire, the wheelbase had to be lengthened slightly by moving the rear end a couple inches. This allowed proper centering of the tire/wheel combination within the wheelwells. Because of this move, the stock gas tank would not fit, so a custom stainless steel gas tank was fabricated to fit within the available dimensions. A Holly electric fuel pump is employed to move the gas towards the rather thirsty engine. To minimize noise and odor, a full 3-inch, ceramic-coated exhaust system routes the spent gases out the rear through stock-appearing A-Body stainless steel tips.
The interior is stock appearing with small A-100 van seats recovered in fresh black vinyl. Custom black carpeting was used to freshen up the interior appearance, and this was carried through the rear seat area, up to the rear shelf. An Autometer tachometer and gauge cluster adds to the period look. In measuring for a shifter, it was found that the pistol-grip shifter from an E-Body would fit perfectly onto the shifter mount of the Keisler transmission and would add another unique touch to the interior. An original woodgrain steering wheel was also found to help finish off the interior. We wanted to keep the look of the strap-activated windows of the original, but realized this was not overly practical for street use, as it only allows for full-up or full-down positions. The straps that are visible on the doors are non-functional, and hidden power-window switches work lightweight Electric Life power-window actuators.
It has been a pleasure to work with such a great group of people at Muscle Car Restorations. I feel extremely privileged to have been party to this fantastic restoration, and will do my best to get the car out of the garage and on the street (and show fields), where it belongs. Now, if I can only get those keys away from John Balow.